The Rules of the Game

A few years ago I commented on H. G. Wells’ Little Wars, a game to “be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty [and] by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women.” I am happy to say that Dover has issued a facsimile reprint featuring the original black and white photographs and charming marginal illustrations by J. R. Sinclair. These alone are worth the price of the volume, and even small children will delight in them.

Wells opens his chronicle with a whimsical history of miniature warfare in its earlier, cruder forms, in which lead figures were simply lined up and knocked down with rocks or slingshots. In more advanced wargaming, he introduces troop movements (with different distances for foot soldiers and cavalry), the use of artillery, hand-to-hand combat and the taking of prisoners. To add to the interest of the battle, hills and buildings made out of wooden blocks are scattered across the imaginary terrain.

Some things have changed since Wells’ day. Miniature spring-operated cannons, the centerpiece of Little Wars, are no longer available except perhaps as rare collectibles. Meanwhile the toy soldier of the last few decades has transitioned from painted metal to unadorned plastic. The latter are not as colorful, but they are cheap, plentiful and more durable. It is not the exact rules that are important – I am inclined to modify Wells’ system considerably – rather it is the incitement to creative fun and, unlike computer games, it is an enjoyable spectator sport.

“The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor,” declares the author. A big space to plan and play in. The concluding part of the book comprises chapters describing grandiose projects like imaginary islands, with savages and ships full of explorers as well as elaborate cities with toy civilians, animals, shops and steam trains. Even in the peacetime scenarios there are certain rules of etiquette to be observed, not least of which is to avoid stepping on the other player’s toys.

In closing, it is perhaps ironic that this work of Wells, the progressive socialist of his day, should require a brief warning in the modern edition for its lack of political correctness. But fortunately the publishers have not bowdlerized the original text.

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